Hillel: If Not Now, When? (Jewish Encounters Series)
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Part of the Jewish Encounter series
“What is hateful unto you, do not do unto your neighbor. That is the whole Torah, all the rest is commentary. Now, go and study.”
This is the most famous teaching of Hillel, one of the greatest rabbis of the Talmudic era. What makes it so extraordinary is that it was offered to a gentile seeking conversion. Joseph Telushkin feels that this Talmudic story has great relevance for us today. At a time when religiosity is equated with ritual observance alone, when few Jews seem concerned with bringing Jewish teachings into the world, and when more than 40 percent of Jews intermarry, Judaism is in need of more of the openness that Hillel possessed two thousand years ago.
Hillel’s teachings, stories, and legal rulings can be found throughout the Talmud; many of them share his emphasis on ethical and moral living as an essential element in Jewish religious practice, including his citing the concept of tikkun olam (repairing the world) as a basis for modifying Jewish law. Perhaps the most prominent rabbi and teacher in the Land of Israel during the reign of Herod, Hillel may well have influenced Jesus, his junior by several decades. In a provocative analysis of both Judaism and Christianity, Telushkin reveals why Hillel’s teachings about ethics as God’s central demand and his willingness to encourage the process of conversion began to be ignored in favor of the stricter and less inclusive teachings of his rabbinic adversary, Shammai.
Here is a bold new look at an iconic religious leader.
Hillel and the three converts challenge three common and widely held assumptions of Jewish life: that Judaism is not interested in non-Jews converting; that if a non-Jew comes to convert, the rabbi’s first obligation is to discourage him from doing so; and that a conversion should be valid only if the proselyte formally undertakes to fully observe all Jewish laws.* There is certainly a basis for these attitudes in the Talmud (see, for example, Kiddushin 70b, Yevamot 47a, and the note below), but
‘May the descendants of Gentiles go in peace.’ ” Hillel, surely aware of such stories, might well have decided to compensate with the greatest kindness for the elitist behavior displayed by some to would-be converts, to converts, and to their descendants. It should also be noted that Hillel’s teachers gave as good as they got. Shmaya and Avtalion retorted: ‘May the descendants of Gentiles who do the work of Aaron [Israel’s original High Priest] go in peace, but may the descendants of Aaron who do
the preeminent figure of the Hebrew Bible, we know how he met his wife, the names of his sons, his father, mother, brother, and sister, even the story of a certain measure of ill will that Miriam and Aaron, his siblings, felt toward him at one point in the desert wanderings. The character who figures most prominently in the early books of the biblical prophets is Israel’s second king, David. The son of Jesse, he is the youngest of eight brothers. We know the story of his first love, Michal;
of the School of Hillel (Jerusalem Talmud, Shabbat 1:4). In the ahistorical universe of the Talmud, followers argue down through the ages, the living argue with the dead, and followers may at times appear to precede those who influenced them. For this reason, along with the paucity of historical detail, this book is not strictly speaking a biography. It is, however, the biography more truly of an aspect of Judaism, one beautifully embodied by Hillel, who represents one of the many faces of
Tzadok of [the School of Hillel] was apparently rich,” and sent food to Rabbi Yochanan when he heard about his poverty (Shmuel Safrai, ed., The Literature of the Sages, p. 188). 2. For a further, more nuanced analysis of this debate, see the Midrashic text Kallah Rabbati 10:1. 3. The Tosafot commentary on the Talmud argues that Shammai intended people to praise the bride, but to confine their praise to those features that were truly attractive, for example, “her eyes or hands if they are